Prince (Protégé) Summer: The Family

thefamily

Unlike Sheila E., the Time, or even Vanity/Apollonia 6, the Family aren’t exactly household names (unless, that is, your household still has a subscription to the NPG Music Club). Among those in the know, however, their self-titled 1985 album is a buried gem. It’s certainly of interest to fans of the group’s svengali, Prince: with its mix of post-psychedelic whimsy, sweeping Classical Hollywood glamour, and organic jazz-flavored funk, it’s effectively the missing link between His Purple Majesty’s 1985-1986 albums Around the World in a Day and Parade.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the Family were born out of the Time‘s acrimonious mid-1984 split: Andre has aptly described them as the Led Zeppelin to the Time’s Yardbirds. With the majority of the band now fired or resigned, Prince retained drummer Jellybean Johnson and dancer/comedic foil Jerome Benton, promoting “St. Paul” Peterson, who had joined the group less than a year earlier on keyboards, to the role of co-lead singer. The other frontperson was none other than the twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy (and Prince’s then-fiancée), Susannah Melvoin. Finally, the lineup was rounded out with saxophonist Eric Leeds, with additional support by Sheila E.’s guitarist Miko Weaver.

Arguably the real star of the Family, however, was never actually part of the group–and, in fact, never even shared the same room with them. Prince had long been a fan of jazz keyboardist, composer, and arranger Clare Fischer: specifically, his more pop-oriented work with Chaka Khan and Rufus from the mid-to-late 1970s. And though they would share a fruitful partnership of their own throughout the rest of the ’80s and into the ’90s, it was The Family that marked their first-ever collaboration. Fischer’s orchestrations add a layer of musical sophistication to the album, particularly on slower, dreamier tracks like first single “The Screams of Passion” and the Bobby Z.-penned “River Run Dry.”

Elsewhere, more conventional funk tracks like “High Fashion” and “Mutiny” betray the Family’s origins in the Time; while two instrumentals co-written by Eric Leeds, “Yes” and “Susannah’s Pajamas,” prefigure Prince’s growing interest in jazz fusion, to be explored more thoroughly in side projects the Flesh and Madhouse. Today, probably the best-remembered track on the album is “Nothing Compares 2 U“: the original recording of the classic Prince ballad later made famous by Sinead O’Connor. I go back and forth on which version I prefer, but I can definitely say that the Family’s is the more “Prince-like”–and Fischer’s arrangement, of course, is gorgeous.

Even in the volatile world that was Paisley Park in the mid-’80s, the Family were especially short-lived. Sales for the album were weak compared to Prince’s other projects at the time–it reached only number 14 on the Billboard R&B chart, missing the “mainstream” charts entirely–and St. Paul chafed under Prince’s micro-management, opting to ditch the group for a solo career in late 1985. In the end, the original incarnation of the Family played only one live show, at Minneapolis‘ First Avenue in August of 1985. Perhaps that’s why, more than any of the other “spinoff” acts, the Family tends to be thought of more as an extension of Prince’s solo work than as a separate entity. Certainly, that’s a point of view Prince encouraged when he absorbed Susannah, Jerome, Eric, and Miko into an expanded version of the Revolution in 1986, even performing his own version of “Mutiny” onstage–not to mention reappropriating the group’s whole velvet-jacketed aesthetic for his film Under the Cherry Moon.

Still, like their evolutionary ancestors the Time, the Family would later return for a second act without Prince’s involvement. A one-off charity gig in late 2003 eventually blossomed into a full-blown reunion, as “fDeluxe,” in 2009; since then, they’ve released two studio albums, a disc of remixes, and a live recording from Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. The fDeluxe records obviously aren’t up to quite the same standard as The Family, but still well worth listening to for anyone who wants to hear more of their uniquely baroque take on the Minneapolis Sound. Most recently, like Sheila E., the Family/fDeluxe have found new vitality in the wake of their onetime mentor’s death: on May 4, 2016–exactly seven hours and thirteen days after Prince passed away–they reunited once again to record a new version of “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

Next week…well, to be honest I haven’t 100% made up my mind about what to tackle next week. It’s between Mazarati–more of a “Prince protégé protégé,” I suppose, but one with an interesting history–and Jill Jones. Any preferences out there? Let me know. And as always, you can see more of my writing on Prince at dance / music / sex / romance, and more of my writing in general at Dystopian Dance Party.

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2 Comments

Filed under 1980's, 1985, 1986, 2010's, 2016, Eric Leeds, Jerome Benton, Miko Weaver, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Paisley Park, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, Susannah Melvoin, The Time, Time, Uncategorized, Wendy Melvoin

2 responses to “Prince (Protégé) Summer: The Family

  1. The Family truly were a side project Prince should’ve developed further. Their debut was excellent,yet Prince didn’t make them a priority as one of his earliest Paisley Park label signings. They could’ve easily been the jazzier funk version of The Time if things hadn’t gone down the way they did between Prince and Paul Peterson. Its very good of you to bring out how important this fantastic group were.

  2. If the family breaking up meant Eric Leeds joining the Prince fold on a full-time basis, I can live with that.

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